CELLStephen KingScribner: January 2006Heather HoffmanMirror book criticStephen King is looking forward to the end of the world. In 1978, he published The Stand, an epic tale in which a genetically engineered virus nicknamed “Captain Trips” escapes from a government lab and kills off 98 percent of the population. The survivors then must choose between God and the Devil in an historic battle for the future of all mankind. In 1990, he published The Stand: The Complete and Uncut Edition– his defiant original vision repackaged with an extra few hundred pages he lost to the editor’s red pen the first time around. After a near-fatal car accident, he wrote Dreamcatcher in longhand from a hospital bed. Once again, humanity faced the apocalypse, this time in the form of an alien invasion.In his latest novel Cell, much like The Stand, humanity once again destroys itself, this time thanks to an electronic pulse sent by an unknown enemy via cell phones. The pulse turns normal people into flesh-eating gibberish-spewing monsters. “Heidi, [for example] surely no older than fourteen and perhaps only twelve, must have been growling in that savage nonsense-language they seemed to learn all at once after they got a full dose of Sane-B-Gone from their phones, saying things like rast and eelah and kazzalah-CAN!… madgirl [Heidi] had begun to work on her mother’s legs. Not little nips, either, but deep, searing bites, some that had driven all the way to the bone.” Indeed, these “phone-crazies” start out as George Romero inspired zombies, attacking each other as viciously as they attack “normies,” — people who manage to miss the pulse and then wisely avoid cell phones altogether. Clay, a struggling comic-book artist fresh from his first big sale, is both the book’s main character and its heart. In the past, King utilized a variety of characters and perspectives to give his apocalypse fiction a broad, epic feel. Cell, however, is really a book relating Clay’s heroic journey set against a backdrop of murder, mayhem and monsters. Clay has a few compatriots along the way, but unlike The Stand, these secondary players are not given solid back stories or even the chance to grow and change in this frightening new world. They are Clay’s window dressing. When they leave Clay’s orbit, they leave the narrative as well.Clay’s quest to find his twelve-year-old son while fighting for his life against the zombie horde is heart-wrenching, suspenseful, and at times quite humorous. When King focuses on Clay’s quest, the novel sings with emotion and beauty. His prose is amazingly economical and lyrical at the same time, and readers will easily recognize in these passages some of the best prose of King’s career. He not only poignantly describes Clay’s devotion to his son, he reveals Clay’s terrible inner conflict – in a world gone mad, how many times must you rank your own survival over finding your child, and at what cost? King has written about terror, loss, and courage, but this is the first time he has attempted to write about the small, minute by minute choices parents are forced to make in a crisis, and the result is riveting.Sadly, Cell also contains passages which read so much like The Stand readers may be tempted to hold the two books side by side for comparison. Once again, all the roads are clogged, and people are forced to hoof it on the highways:“There were several dozen abandoned cars on the lower deck of the span, and a fire truck with EAST BOSTON lettered on its avocado-green side that had been sideswiped by a cement truck (both were abandoned), but mostly this level of the bridge belonged to the pedestrians. Except now you probably have to call them refugees, Clay thought, and then realized there was no them about it. Us. Call us refugees.”King may borrow images of devastation and urban hiking from The Stand, but he does not borrow its morality or its spirituality. Instead, after establishing Clay as the book’s moral center, he indulges in many shades of grey. The normies aren’t breaking bread together in Colorado. In a much more realistic scenario, they are distrustful and mean to one another, forming small, roving bands that do their best to stay out of each other’s way. Cell is a down to earth, gritty novel, as tight as it is fast-paced, yet King, the master of both horror and character development, never allows his narrative to leave his heroes behind. Irony, humor and social commentary flow from his characters and situations as easily as his action sequences. Readers, even fans of The Stand, will enjoy Cell as both an engrossing thriller and a memorable character study.
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